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The state of human trafficking and sport in 2019

Ashraf Hendricks/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

This story has been corrected. Read below

Every day, we see examples of the positive power of sports changing the world, such as the U.S. women's national soccer team fighting for equal pay. However, we cannot focus on just these powerful moments; we should not lose focus of the dark side of sports as a magnet for human trafficking. We focus on exactly that on July 30 -- the World Day against Trafficking in Persons.

You might say to yourself that human trafficking can't possibly be a problem in my neighborhood, county, city or state. You would be wrong. Human trafficking is happening across the globe. Possibly in your own backyard. It might not receive as much media coverage as other issues affecting our nation and the rest of the world, but due to the heinous nature of human trafficking, it deserves our full and undivided attention.

Here is a graphic picture of why we must stop it. According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), there are more than 40 million victims of human trafficking globally: 81% are doing forced labor; 25% of them are children; 75% are women and girls. According to a study conducted by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the average age a child is forced into the sex trade is from 12 to 14 years old. She -- or he -- will have sex repeatedly each day, every day. In the unlikely case that child broke free by the age of 16, she or he would have been raped thousands of times.

While sports is a huge global business, it pales in comparison to human trafficking. The ILO estimates that forced labor and human trafficking is a $150 billion industry worldwide.

Large sporting events such as the Super Bowl or NCAA Final Four are prime targets for human traffickers because of the number of people who converge onto a city during these events. The situation frequently revolves around men who are single or traveling without their partner in an environment where there often is a significant amount of alcohol being consumed. However, this pattern has become more public, as individuals typically have been arrested right around the same time as the sporting event. For example, before Super Bowl LIII was contested in Atlanta in February, a myriad of initiatives were put in place to educate the public on the warning signs of human trafficking. Law enforcement and community groups worked together to proactively respond to occurrences of human trafficking. Delta Airlines premiered an in-flight video providing information to identify human trafficking and trained more than 56,000 of its employees on these warning signs, as well.

The work of these groups, combined with law enforcement, led to 169 individuals being arrested on charges of human trafficking in the 11 days leading up to Super Bowl LIII. In anticipation of Super Bowl LIV in Miami in 2020, groups across the state of Florida already have begun voicing concerns about trafficking and educating the public on how to identify victims of human trafficking. Uber has partnered with state law enforcement in preparation for Super Bowl LIV to educate drivers on how to handle situations possibly involving human trafficking.

Just after the most recent Super Bowl, the sports world and the public were rocked when it was reported that New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft -- along with more than two dozen other men -- was charged with solicitation of prostitution in Jupiter, Florida. The case led to more widespread coverage of human trafficking across the country in following days and weeks. The news opened a window on Asian massage parlors being common locations for prostitution and possible sex trafficking.

During March Madness, anti-human trafficking informational posters were on display in the restrooms of the Colonial Life Arena in Columbia, South Carolina, for the first two rounds of NCAA men's basketball tournament. It is commendable that the state of South Carolina now has a law requiring human trafficking informational posters to be on display in facilities such as airports, hotels and bars. Hopefully, other states will follow in its footsteps to educate residents and visitors alike about human trafficking.

In Minneapolis during the men's Final Four in April, 58 individuals were arrested on charges of sex trafficking and soliciting, while 27 adults and one child under the age of 18 were rescued during the sting.

There still are some individuals who naively believe large sporting events are not targeted by human traffickers, but within the past six months, we have seen stings take place across the country at nearly every major sporting event. During the Kentucky Derby in Louisville, four individuals were arrested on human trafficking-related charges, while 13 potential victims were also rescued. At the Coca-Cola 600 NASCAR race in Charlotte, North Carolina, in June, 15 potential victims of human trafficking were rescued, while three individuals were arrested on human trafficking charges.

Human trafficking sees no color, gender or background. Perpetrators see their victims as less than human, seeking to trap and enslave victims as property, furthering the vicious human trafficking cycle. Human trafficking is not restricted by geography or a specific sporting event. It is happening across the globe, and quite possibly in your own community.

In June, professional golf caddie Evan Vollerthum, who has worked with players on the Korn Ferry, PGA and PGA's senior tours, was arrested on human trafficking and exploitation charges in Topeka, Kansas. This is yet another example of how anyone can be the face of human trafficking.

While human trafficking is now well-documented around large sporting events, it is not the only way it is connected to sports. Sports and athletes are fighting back, with Major League Baseball in the lead. MLB icons Clayton Kershaw and Albert Pujols are doing their part in the fight against human trafficking, with Kershaw helping children sex trafficking victims in the Dominican Republic and Pujols using his platform to bring awareness to human trafficking. Pujols' work has led to a $500,000 donation from the MLB and its players' association that will benefit several organizations working to end human trafficking and rehabilitate those victims who have been rescued.

I would like to see more athletes stepping up and using their platform to increase awareness about human trafficking, not only in the United States, but around the world. It is a humanitarian crisis that only will continue to grow if more people don't educate themselves and others and join the fight.

In 2013, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime chose to "raise awareness of the situation of victims of human trafficking and for the promotion and protection of their rights." This year, on the ninth World Day Against Human Trafficking in Persons, we will continue to recognize this day for as long as it takes to eliminate this modern-day slavery from our society. I am proud of the work that the UNODC has done to fight human trafficking, and I am hopeful that through the programs and initiatives it supports, we will be able to end this horrendous crime once and for all.

I encourage everyone to join in the fight by educating yourselves about this atrocious crime in the hopes of identifying possible victims -- and even stopping human traffickers in their tracks.

Meaghan Coleman contributed to this column.

Richard E. Lapchick is the chair of the DeVos Sport Business Management Graduate Program at the University of Central Florida. Lapchick also directs UCF's Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, is the author of 17 books and the annual Racial and Gender Report Card, and is the president of the Institute for Sport and Social Justice. He has been a regular commentator for ESPN.com on issues of diversity in sport. Follow him on Twitter @richardlapchick and on Facebook.

An earlier version of this story incorrectly characterized New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft's legal status in Florida. Kraft was charged, along with two dozen other men, with solicitation of prostitution in Jupiter, Florida.